Cleveland’s Harmelss Sounding “Balloonfest ’86” Turns Lethal

On July 23, 2015 by Tim Newman

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Before

I used to think that balloons were harmless harbingers of fun, but it turns out that en masse they can be pretty dangerous. Balloonfest ’86 shows us just how wrong things can go when balloons are involved.

The premise of balloonfest ’86 was a gentle and fun idea: release a couple of million balloons over Cleveland, Ohio. The plan was to raise money for the United Way, an American not-for-profit organisation. Balloon art company Treb spent 6 months meticulously planning the event. What could go wrong?

A rectangular structure the size of a city block, measuring 250 feet by 150 feet and rising three stories high, covered with a one-piece net of woven mesh material, was set up to contain the hoards of balloons. Students and other helpers stood inside the structure filling the monumental quantity of balloons with helium for many, many hours. The promise of being world record breakers kept productivity high.

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Clouds Of Balloons 2

The original target was 2 million balloons, but in the end they stopped at 1.4 million. That would be enough to make an impressive display, and it still beat the world record number that Disney had set the year before. All good.

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Release

And what a mighty helium-filled display it was. Because rain was on the way they released the balloons slightly earlier than planned, but what a sight. Multicoloured blobs filled the surrounding skies, met with whooping and cheering from all and sundry.

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Clouds Of Balloons

Then things took a swift turn for the worse. The fun time, good willed gesture suddenly turned very sour indeed.

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Event United Way

The cold damp weather meant that rather than the balloons sailing far and wide, they dropped back to earth and clogged roads and waterways for miles. They started washing up on the banks of Lake Eerie, even Canadians complained that the balloons were polluting their beaches.

One runway at Burke Lakefront airport had to be closed down for half an hour as the balloon descended on it. Multiple accidents on the roads were reported…

…as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle.

Some of the million plus balloons paid a visit to Louise Nowakowsk who bred Arabian horses. The balloons spooked the horses causing them to go so nuts that they permanently injured themselves. Nowakowsk sued United Way of Cleveland for $100,000. Whoops. But that was the least of their concerns.

On the day of the ill-planned Balloonfest ’86 two fishermen were reported missing on Lake Eerie – Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer. Their boat was spotted but helicopters had a hard time reaching the area thanks to the “asteroid field” of balloons. On top of that, searching for two men in a lake filled with balloons bobbing around like swimmers in trouble was an impossible task.

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Lake Eerie Search For Fishermen

The fishermen washed up dead on the shore a few days later. The wife of one of the fishermen sued United Way for $3.2 million, but later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Balloon Fest 86 Cleveland - Millions In The Air

United Way officially announced that they would never do a balloon based fundraiser again. You have to admit, the spectacle looked pretty impressive. But the power of foresight seems to have evaded the organisers somewhat.





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